~Confessions of a mindfulness and meditation instructor~
Have you ever awakened from a deep sleep realizing that you slept through your morning alarm? Do you recall that feeling of utter terror, thoughts racing about the consequences? How did this happen? Did I forget to set my alarm? How late is it? How much trouble am I in? Will I get fired? The myriad chaotic thoughts and the flood of adrenalin-induced physical feelings can be overwhelming!
Now, imagine the same feelings coming in rapid waves… sometimes for hours or even days at a time… one after another, sometimes without apparent warning or seemingly logical cause? This is what anxiety and anxiety-based panic attacks (ABPA) feel like for those of us who struggle with this particularly nasty mental health issue.
I’m not trained in psychology, but I have learned a few things about preventing and coping with mental health issues over the course of my 50+ years. I’ve struggled with, been defeated by, and am learning to cope with and even heal from anxiety and ABPA.
I’m not going to preach that mindfulness and meditation is the cure-all answer for this. It’s not and I should know! I have integrated a mindfulness approach to life, along with meditation practices, for many years and I am a certified mindfulness and meditation instructor. But, I can share that mindfulness and meditation practices are and should be part of a framework of strategies for addressing and preventing the impact of a long-term anxiety disorder and panic attacks.
Developing resiliency is of fundamental importance because resiliency provides two benefits: it helps us develop skills that assist us to recover from acute circumstances or chronic difficulties and it helps us prevent the potential onslaught of anxiety and ABPA, sometimes altogether. Developing resiliency is training ourselves to strengthen and/or regain our balance and sense of equanimity regardless of what life throws at us. Like any good skill, developing resiliency takes practice to learn, to develop and to perfect.
We can develop resiliency through enhancing our sense of self-confidence. That is, building and sustaining our feelings of competence and our ability to effectively cope with stressful situations. It’s also about self-esteem – a strong sense of personal freedom and self-reliance, and of showing ourselves and others kindness and compassion.
Effectively developing resiliency needs the support of those in our social circles – our family and our friends. Our success depends, in part, on those who provide us the support we need, who share our interests, our values, and our experiences. And, developing resiliency requires us to be flexible and adaptable to ever-changing circumstances that are beyond our control, embracing and even welcoming the uncertainties of life. It’s about being creative and creating space, mentally, physically and spiritually. It is about the skills we develop specifically through mindfulness and meditation.
Finally, developing resiliency requires us to establish for ourselves a clear sense of purpose, with clear values, drive and direction. It requires us to accept challenges and setbacks as part of normal experiences in life that are opportunities for learning, for personal growth, and for maturing as individuals. It takes a willful ‘choosing’ to have a positive outlook which is most effectively developed through a consistent and daily practice of gratitude.
CONNECT WITH NATURE
One of the most effective ways to deal with stress and anxiety is to connect, or reconnect, with nature. For me, a day without sunshine, or without feeling the earth and breathing fresh air in some way, is like trying to breathe underwater – it’s just not possible. When we get back to the basics, like being in nature, we reconnect with a part of ourselves that is real, beyond the myriad thoughts swirling without end in our heads. In fact, for me, being in nature calms my mind and helps me see that my thoughts are not actually real – they have no substance.
Our minds can be very useful servants, but they are horrible masters. Getting out of my head is like stepping out into a day full of warm sunshine. And for me, the absolute best approach is to practice meditation in an outdoor setting – the best of both worlds – stepping beyond the illusive mind and connecting with the physical present-moment reality within which I actually exist!
CONNECT WITH YOUR HIGHER SELF
Similar to connecting with nature, we can connect with the other true reality in our present-moment experience of life – that of our higher Self. Whether you call it your soul, your spirit, your cosmic consciousness or something else, connecting and living from our heart-centre brings about stability and helps us see our life challenges, anxiety and panic attacks from a perspective that makes them more manageable, understandable and even surmountable. We are not just our skin, hair or eye colour – nor are we just our gender, sexual orientation or physical age. We are not just our job title, family position or social status. And we certainly are not the anxiety-producing thoughts that seem never ending. In fact, we are the conscious awareness of all that comes and goes in our life, the sacred life-energy that allows us to transcend our thinking, our anxiety and panic attacks, and that allows us to live with the enjoyment of a life full of loving kindness, peace and joy.
COPING IN A CRISIS
So, what about ABPA? Anyone who has struggled with panic attacks knows how debilitating they can be, both during and after the attacks. The effects can be long-lasting and often debilitating, if not downright oppressive and discouraging.
Admittedly, even after years of mindfulness living and meditation practice, I still struggle with anxiety and ABPA. It’s just a part of my life-long struggle with my own mental health issues. Here are the strategies I developed after many, many years of living with anxiety and ABPA:
1. Seek medical/professional interventions when necessary. Sometimes our stress can be so prolonged and protracted that our brain chemistry can get knocked off balance. It’s always important to seek out professional help and decide together what the best approach or approaches are for you.
2. Face, head on, the dark shadows of mental health issues by shining light on and understanding the root causes. Until you’ve developed your own skills for objectively identifying the underlying causes for your anxiety, it is important to seek the help of others, or even professionals. Sometimes, the fundamental causes are buried or repressed so deeply, from so far back in our past, we are unable to see or address them on our own. We need to develop skills to objectively see our anxiety-causing issues and address them in a way that is healthy. For me, that has been a combination of strategies including the development and inclusion of mindfulness living and meditation practices.
3. Use constant reminders that, during an attack, ‘this too shall pass’. I will often use this phrase as a mantra during times of anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s a fact that we need to remind ourselves of, often. In the same way, when the storm passes, it’s important to reflect on the reality that these episodes do not last – they DO come to an end. We cannot always avoid the large waves of the storm, but we can learn to surf them successfully.
4. Stay present as much as possible, using mindfulness living exercises and meditation practices, including the use of mantras, for embracing and releasing the painful feelings of panic and anxiety. Being present means that we recognize and observe the parts of our Self that are real; anxiety and the thoughts that create it are NOT real. Focusing on our physical bodies, tactile exercises, and getting out into nature are just a few ways to address anxiety and panic attacks. You can experiment and figure out what works for you.
5. Practice self-compassion and gratitude, recognizing that every struggle in life is an opportunity for growth, and that every struggle is a reminder that we are more than our current state of humanity. We are the sacred expression of the Divine. Remembering and practicing rituals that reinforce this will strengthen our resiliency and, will help us to cope with anxiety and panic attacks, and to reduce or prevent them altogether.
Although anxiety and panic attacks are painful, there is no need to endlessly suffer from them. Get help, develop skills and learn to better manage the phantom of our minds.
We don’t like to admit that we are flawed and fragile creatures. But we all have our struggles, and we all can find some measure of healing through loving-kindness – for ourselves, and for each other.
Breathing in, I embrace my anxiety.
Breathing out, I let go of the pain it causes.
Breathing in, I embrace the healing that comes from acceptance, gratitude and compassion.
Breathing out, I feel the love, joy and peace that is always, already present.
Author Bio – Paul Kenney has contributed to DailyZen before Rewiring Your Brain Through Mindfulness And Meditation, Creating Harmony Within and Comfort and Joy. As a certified mindfulness and meditation instructor through the Maclean Meditation Institute and devoted meditator himself, Paul believes in the integration of mind, body and spirit as necessary for healing and bringing about physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Through meditation, he believes anyone can develop the ability to be heart-centred and live in gratitude, joy and peace, despite past or current trauma and life struggles.